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5 Tips for Keeping Social Anxiety at Bay

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The holiday season is upon us, which for many, can mean an uptick in social engagements – the company holiday party, the neighbor’s grab-bag gift exchange, the New Year’s Eve gatherings, and so on. For those suffering from social anxiety – an excessive fear of being judged negatively – it can be a particularly unnerving time of year.

People with severe social anxiety have few friends, drop out of school, and may even be unable to work or leave their home. Milder, and much more common forms of social anxiety, take their toll in myriad ways. People who experience lower levels of social anxiety report missing out on opportunities for meeting new friends and widening social networks, engaging with old friends and renewing bonds, professional networking, dating, and feelings of frustration and loneliness.

The good news is there are many things you can do to help alleviate and deal with social anxiety. Below are six tips to keep in mind and help get you through this year’s holiday gatherings:

#1 Normalize your anxiety. Anxiety is our natural and normal response to perceived danger – the body and mind prepare for fight or flight by producing adrenaline. Without adrenaline, we can’t perform at our best. Concern about what others think is natural, too. Humans evolved as a social species and depend on one another to survive. Fear of negative judgment helps ensure harmony in groups.

It is helpful if we can be both aware, and appreciative of, our biological imperatives relative to anxiety, and recognize our bodies are just reacting they way they were designed to.

#2 Remind yourself that anxiety isn’t reality. Everyone has a steady internal monologue of thoughts that impact mood and energy. Social anxiety feeds on thoughts that exaggerate danger, foresee dire consequences, and attribute negative judgments to others. Thoughts like, “This party will be terrible”or “I feel nervous, and everyone can tell”sow seeds from which the physical experience of anxiety – racing heart, cold sweat – grows.

Thinking this way is just habit. And, like most habits, it can be changed.

Be aware of your thoughts. What are you telling yourself when you feel nervous about entering a room… making small talk with stranger… being with people you haven’t seen in a long time? Keep a record of each situation (the notes section of smart phones is a handy place to do this); briefly write down your negative thoughts and the level of anxiety you experience. Anxiety producing thoughts are almost always distortions and exaggerations – “everyone is staring at me”… “I have nothing interesting to say”… “I gained 10 pounds and everyone is thinking about it”.

The antidote isn’t positive thinking but realistic thinking. Examine your anxiety producing thoughts critically and correct them. For example:

Internal critical voice: You attend a holiday work lunch with people you don’t know well or interact with often. You think, it will be a disaster… I’ll have nothing to say… Everyone will know how anxious I am.

Realistic correction: Lunch will probably go well… I’m usually articulate and make a nice impression… And if things don’t go perfectly, it won’t be the end of the world. We’ll enjoy the food and break from work, and that’s what people will remember.

#3 Fight anxiety with your breathing. One of the ways anxiety becomes heightened is when we dwell on the idea of it growing worse. By breathing deeply and slowly from your belly, you can begin to mitigate this phenomenon. Practice laying down with your hands resting over your stomach. To start, blow out all the air you can. Then take a slow, deep breath in through your nose for a count of five. Notice your abdomen rising, and then exhale to the same count of five, and feel your abdomen flatten.

After you become accustomed to this kind of breathing, practice it while sitting, standing and eventually in the course of your daily activities. Soon it will feel easy and natural.

Then whenever you start feeling anxious, be aware of your breathing. If it is shallow, rapid, and not from your belly, consciously shift to slow abdominal breathing.

#4 Shift your mental focus. Anxiety turns your attention inward. You notice your heart racing… You worry that your hands are shaking…You wonder what negative thoughts people are having about you. This is certain to increase your anxiety.

Instead: get out of your head and focus your attention on the task itself. If you are talking to someone at a dinner, practice maintaining eye contact and active listening. Think about how he or she might be feeling, rather than what to say next.

If anxiety continues to build, focus on neutral factors… The color and texture of the carpet… The feel of something you are holding in your hands. Such a shift in focus will interrupt the anxiety cycle and let you be attentive and present.

#5 Learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. This is not easy, but with practice, most people can get there. We have a tendency to like things to be clear cut in order to be able to anticipate what’s to come; in other words, surprises throw us off and make us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always cooperate. Not everyone will like you. Not everyone will approve of your every action, your outfit, your new hairstyle, and so on. But if you can learn to come to terms with the idea that you can’t control everything, you can free yourself from a lot of unnecessary discomfort. Learning to go with the flow is possible, and we can all benefit from the act of acceptance.

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"It is never too late to be what you might have been." ~ George Eliot